By Bob Allen
The head of a watchdog group advocating the separation of church and state says the IRS should investigate whether Liberty University broke the law when U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz announced on campus he is running for president.
Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote IRS Commissioner John Koskinen March 26 urging the agency to crack down on laws that forbid tax-exempt non-profit groups from partisan politics before the 2016 presidential race hits full steam.
Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, also mentioned Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative group that has long openly defied the ban by inviting preachers to endorse candidates from the pulpit in hopes that if they are sued the rule added to the tax code in 1954 would be declared unconstitutional.
The electioneering prohibition applies to houses of worship and 501(c)(3) charities like Liberty University, a church-related school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Lynn said it is difficult to see the invitation to Cruz, widely interpreted as an attempt to court evangelical voters, “as anything less than an endorsement of his candidacy, notwithstanding the university president’s perfunctory disclaimer to the contrary.”
Cruz, a member of Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated First Baptist Church in Houston, became the first major presidential contender officially announced as a candidate at the school in Lynchburg, Va., March 23.
Media reports indicated he received a warm welcome, though some students said they resented the speech at a convocation that students are required to attend, because they support another likely GOP contender, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
In 2009 Liberty University ceased recognition of its campus Democratic club, saying the national party’s platform went against the conservative Christian school’s moral principles.
Lynn said it appears Cruz chose Liberty because it offered certain advantages, and the school was more than happy to assist his cause. “Sen. Cruz wanted potential donors and conservative voters to believe that he has the support of thousands of young people at the largest Christian university in the world,” he wrote.
Lynn said Liberty University has a long history of mingling politics and faith. Americans United had previously reported the school to the IRS three times, most recently in 2010.
Lynn said Liberty University’s decision “to hold what amounted to a campaign rally” for Cruz is “precisely the sort of activity” that should warrant investigation of its tax status. Unwillingness by the IRS in recent years to launch such investigations, he said, “has had the apparent effect of leading Liberty and other tax-exempt entities to believe they can ignore federal law.”
Lynn said many Americans don’t want to see non-profit groups turned into partisan outposts.
“Many Americans are concerned over the abuse of tax-exempt status by organizations with partisan political intent,” he wrote. “With our nation approaching a presidential election, the problem of pulpit politicking will only become more acute.”